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Friday, March 11, 2011

Dog Park Idea Off the Leash and Running

Dog Park Idea Off the Leash and Running
By Mike Lauterborn
(appeared on front page of Fairfield-Sun 3/10)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Fairfield is a special place to live with a wide range of amenities from beaches and golf courses to hiking trails and a skateboard park. The one thing it lacks, many complain, is a dedicated dog park – a place where dogs can have a good, safe run without impediment. RTM member Alexis Harrison has heard the outcry, has studied the issues and is spearheading efforts to make such a park a reality.

Current Allowances Not Ideal

At present, of the town’s six beaches, only Jennings Beach allows dogs to be off-leash and only during the October 1 to March 31 window. While dog owners take full advantage of the access, Harrison said, “Having dogs unleashed at the beach can impede non-dog owners’ enjoyment of that space. Additionally, equestrians bring their horses down to the beach in the off-season, which have the potential to injure dogs that are off the leash.”

Harrison noted, “There is Lake Mohegan where you can take your dogs off leash, but the downside is that it’s not a dog-dedicated space, people often don’t pick up after their dogs and dogs are susceptible to ticks, litter and other adverse environmental factors.”

Harrison notes that there is also space by the Jennings marina that allows dogs to roam free. “But there’s a lot of tall seagrass and other environmental impediments that prevent a dog from getting a good run,” Harrison added.

First Steps

Harrison said First Selectman Ken Flatto first breached the idea of a dog park in Fairfield about three years ago. “He was looking at land near Osborn Hill School and thought of dedicating a small portion as a dog park/run,” said Harrison. “Unfortunately, the plan was not pursued and the space has become a residential development.”

This past January, Doug Garni breached the subject again. A friend of Harrison’s who visits Jennings Beach daily with his dog Harley, Garni asked her why a town like Fairfield, with some 60,000 residents and many other offerings, couldn’t provide a dog park as well. His frustration hit home with Harrison, a former dog owner, and she decided to do something about it. “With over 3,500 registered dog owners in Fairfield, it seems like a natural progression to add a dog park to our many amenities," she said.

Initially, Harrison met with Jerry Lombardo, who oversees the Parks and Recreation Department. Harrison argued that communities like New Canaan, Darien, Shelton and Greenwich have dedicated dog parks. Lombardo agreed there was a need and affirmed his commitment to help bring a plan to fruition. Harrison also met with other town officials and RTM colleagues to assess their view of the need and to ensure that the idea had majority support in principle.

“A lot of my RTM colleagues have ongoing dialogues with constituents,” Harrison said. “They have their finger on the pulse of town needs and desires. In fact, a fellow RTM member told me that a constituent was walking on Jennings Beach recently and was almost attacked by an unleashed dog. The woman was quite shaken by the incident. It underscores the need for a dedicated park where dogs can roam freely. That’s not to say that dogs should run wild. There would be rules that would be in place.”

Dog owners, not surprisingly, like Catherine Street resident David Becker, support a park plan. “We’re a very dog friendly family in general. There are a lot of places here with dog restrictions. We used to take our dog over to Pine Creek Beach and could off-leash him, but they’ve disallowed that now. Our dog is trained on voice command, and to have to put him on a leash in certain areas is not desirable. Off the leash, he stays within voice command and is free to do his own thing. He’s much happier in this way and gets really excited the moment he hits the sand. Personally, I think off-leashing should be allowed in more spaces. The benefit of a dog park would be recreating a space like Jennings where dogs can roam.”

With anecdotal evidence and input from other officials and dog owners, Harrison met with Flatto mid-February. “Mr. Flatto was very gracious, open and receptive to the idea and we have had a few conversations since. We are now in preliminary discussions with him, Lombardo and Conservation Director Tom Stenke about a precise location for a dog park.”

With regard to the space, Harrison said, “My understanding is that the Parks and Rec department does not have the field space to give up for a dog park. So, ultimately, Conservation and its commission will need to evaluate what’s available in their land inventory and what we can use. It will need to be determined if the space can meet parking needs and if it’s conducive and appropriate for the neighborhood. Other issues include drainage and noise.”

Harrison pointed to Westport’s Winslow Park as an exemplary dog park. “It’s a great facility. It’s simple, not fancy. The people who use it are great caretakers. They clean up after their dogs and keep them on the leash when they’re in the parking lot. I hope Fairfield can emulate it in the near future.”

Going Forward

Harrison feels that the town as a whole will truly benefit from a dog park for several reasons. “It improves the quality of life for dog owners and dogs, for one. It provides a safe and clean environment for exercise. It will alleviate friction between dog owners and non-dog owners at the beach. It promotes responsible dog ownership. It could potentially serve as a site for an animal adoption day or spot for dog training seminars, something the town currently offers as continuing education. The park could also serve as a training and exercise location for dogs in the Fairfield Police Department’s proposed K-9 Unit.”

She sees the mission as fairly straightforward: to establish a large, enclosed area where well-behaved canines can exercise.

As a next step, Harrison said Flatto would like park proponents and dog enthusiasts to form a small committee to determine the needs of a dog park and what would be needed to create and maintain it. “We will need to address certain issues like maintenance, garbage removal, waste control and clean-up supplies. I don’t want this to hurt the taxpayers or be an extravagant facility, but there are essential items that need to be provided for. I really think this can be a positive endeavor for the town – a win-win for all residents," she said.

Harrison hopes a park can be established within a year’s time, but notes that there are many hurdles that would also need to be jumped. “It’s possible we’ll need approval from Conservation to use an open space allotment, a budget needs to be created to do it right with fencing and we need to determine funding sources. Again, we should pursue this as a simple endeavor. Certainly, if the town can fund something like a skate park for $350,000, I think a dog park that would cost far less is attainable.”


A Pro’s Dog Park Perspective

Kelly Barnes Millington, who provides house and pet sitting through her business Sitting Pretty, is particularly qualified to speak about the prospect of a dedicated dog park in Fairfield.

“I’ve been in the dog walking business for 11 years and the perspective that I’ve gained from my clients is that Fairfield is not a dog friendly town,” said Millington. “It would be really wonderful to have a dedicated place to bring dogs year round. It would be even better to have it in a convenient location. I think that’s why so many people use the beach in the wintertime. Some people go to Brett Woods and Lake Mohegan, but those spots are out of the way for many.”

Millington believes that exercise is integral for a dog’s health and mental well-being. “It’s also a great opportunity for people to come together with their animals and socialize,” she added.

Millington said a few ruin things for the many. “Being a responsible pet-sitting professional, when I’m out walking the dogs, I’m very conscious of my surroundings and seek to keep the dogs under my control. If others could follow suit, there would be fewer issues between dog owners and non-owners. A dog park would help reduce incidences and provide a safe, fenced-in space that welcomes dogs and their owners.”

The pet sitter believes a dog park would be well utilized and easy to institute. “I can’t imagine it would cost much to create. Certain essentials might include providing clean-up bags, a source of fresh water and fencing. It could be a real social magnet for owners and their pets and an attractive selling point for the town.”

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